By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Other than Jesus himself, no one is more responsible for the spread of Christianity than the Apostle Paul.
As a young man Paul expended a lot of energy harassing Christians. As he says in Galatians 1:13, “There was simply no limit to the way I persecuted the church of God in my attempts to destroy it.” He then had a dramatic conversion and began spreading the gospel even more enthusiastically than he once persecuted its followers.
A complex man, forever haunted by his misdeeds, as he says in 1 Corinthians 15:9, Paul represents a model of Christianity that is uncannily contemporary.
In his faults he anticipates the brokenness and fragmentation of post-modern humanity, trying to make sense of a sometimes chaotic world. In his determination he prefigures today’s Christian evangelical, ferociously driven for the kingdom of God. In his insistence on waving Jewish cultural and religious restrictions for new, Gentile converts, and in the tailor-made messages he delivered to different communities, Paul embodies the contemporary thrust to inculturate the Christian gospel.
Paul was, in a sense, the first Christian missionary, and his legacy is one of exploring new horizons for the kingdom of God.
For Christians who follow the Western Liturgical Calendar, Jan. 25 is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, a day when the faithful recite special prayers in honor of the man who started the global phenomenon known as Christianity.
When the reader of the Bible first meets Paul, who was then called Saul, the would-be apostle is watching with approval as Stephen, a follower of Jesus, is being stoned to death in Acts 7.
Despite the pleasure he seems to take in observing a murder, Paul was no dumb brute. As Acts 22: 3 says, he was educated at the feet of Gamaliel II, perhaps the leading rabbi of his time.
According to the Rev. Brian Tatum, Paul’s education in the ways of those who would eventually become his adversaries prepared him for the sometimes confrontational nature of his ministry, and it eventually helped him present the Christian message with great clarity and force.
“Christianity never seems like a fairy-tale in Paul’s preaching,” said Tatum, pastor of Harmony Baptist Church in Walnut.
“He preaches with the weight of experience, and with the force of repentance and conversion,” he said.
“He counted himself a former ‘chief sinner,’” said the Rev. Gerald Patterson, overseer of Words of Faith Deliverance Ministries in Tupelo. “He’s been down the wrong road, so he knows the ins and outs.”
Philippians 3: 5 says that Paul belonged to the party of the Pharisees, and, like most of his brethren, he carried his commitment to the extreme.
“It’s hard to overstate how fervent Paul is in his devotion to the cause,” said Tatum. “He’s all in, 110 percent.”
Most scholars believe it was about two years after Jesus’ crucifixion, while he was busy hunting down Christians, that Paul was thrown from his horse and heard the voice of the risen Jesus ask, “Why do you persecute me?”
That marked the beginning of a missionary effort that saw Paul plant churches throughout Asia Minor and the Greek peninsula.
According to Patterson, there’s a story behind the story in Paul’s narrative. For the careful reader this back-story reveals insight into the man’s character as well as into the success and challenges of his mission.
Paul was born in Tarsus, in the Roman province of Cilicia, and as a result he became familiar at a young age with Greek philosophical and cultural ideas.
Paul’s “otherness,” according to Patterson, was both a help and a hindrance. He enjoyed the benefits of Roman citizenship, which got him out of a pickle more than once, as in Acts 22: 25, where he’s tied up and is about to be flogged by a centurion.
“His framework was the wider world, as opposed to the more insular world of Jerusalem and Jewish culture,” said Patterson.
It wasn’t until three years after his conversion that Paul visited Jerusalem for the first time, where he had a long talk with Jesus’ disciples, Peter and James.
At least a decade after their first meeting, probably around 49 A.D., at a council in Jerusalem, Paul differed strenuously with Peter and James over whether Gentile converts should be required to observe Jewish laws, like circumcision.
“Paul was doing a new thing, his vision transcended what many considered the necessary steps to inclusion in the community,” said Tatum.
The tension over what exactly should be required of new converts, or, more specifically, how Judaism fit into the Christian movement, caused Paul ongoing problems in several cities where he planted churches, as in Corinth.
Part of the challenge Paul faced, according to Tatum, was that he lacked the credentials of some of Jesus’ other followers. Peter and James, for example, had been eyewitnesses and participants in Jesus’ life. Paul never met Jesus in the flesh.
“Paul’s authority basically came from faith, from an experience with the risen Christ that isn’t so different from any of us,” said Tatum.
It was probably because he wasn’t a member of the Jerusalem community, Patterson said, that Paul adopted the strategy of taking the church to the people.
“I have become all things to all people,” said Patterson, quoting Paul’s words in I Corinthians 19.
The outward-bound, evangelical momentum that Paul exhibited can be seen in contemporary movements that meet people where they are, Patterson said, like the “missional” movement, or movements similar to it, like the “seeker-sensitive” or “emerging” movements. All of these aim to redefine community and to take church outside the sanctuary and into the world.
Although there’s some disagreement among scholars, eight New Testament epistles are considered without question to be directly attributable to Paul.
Those include Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians and Philemon.
These works don’t constitute a systematic theology, or offer a doctrinal explanation for individual teachings, according to the Rev. Bill Bradford, and that can unfortunately sometimes lead people to read inconsistencies in Paul. However, taken as a whole the works do provide a good overview of the apostle’s outlook and strategy.
According to Bradford, pastor of Lawndale Presbyterian Church in Tupelo (PCA), it’s important to understand that in each case Paul was speaking to an individual community, and he modified his message according to the unique circumstances in which he found himself.
“Paul was great at speaking the people’s language. He cleverly chose terms and phrases that spoke to people’s cultural experiences,” said Bradford.
As an example, Bradford pointed to Acts 17: 28, where Paul, speaking to Greeks in and around Athens, said, “…for it is in him (Jesus) that we live, move and have our being.”
“That’s taken from the poet, Epimenides, and the philosopher Aratus,” said Bradford.
“Paul is taking a concept, a quote, from their own culture and showing how Christ is present in the wisdom that comes through,” he said.
Before arriving in Tupelo, Bradford and his wife and children spent a decade doing missionary work in Peru. Becoming familiar with the folkways and customs of the Peruvian people, and learning to honor the good and holy things in their culture, was the first step, Bradford said, in successfully spreading the gospel.
“I could name several, but one of the most obvious cultural characteristics was the importance Peruvians placed on greeting someone,” said Bradford.
“As a missionary, when you address the poor with an air of dignity, it’s a great evangelistic tool,” he said.
Paul, Bradford said, understood the essential truth of missionary work, that evangelism is about building relationships, recognizing and honoring the image of God that’s always present in human culture.
“That’s the heart of Paul’s message,” said Bradford. “Across cultures, across races, in the risen Christ we are remade, reformed. We’re dignified, worthy of love and respect.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.